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Mystery Abounds in ‘The Prisoner’ Remake

Nick Anderson | Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In its original form, “The Prisoner” was one of the most ambitious, revolutionary and compelling series ever aired on television. It acquired a dedicated cult following, and its influence has trickled into “The Simpsons,” “The Truman Show” and even a few Slayer songs. The show was strange, beautiful, intriguing and heavy.

AMC has proven itself a fertile network for brilliantly dark dramas, riding high on the critical success of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” while proving there is a devoted niche audience who will find these shows. Its latest project is a remake of “The Prisoner” for modern audiences. The first episode premiered on Sunday.

The casting of Jim Caviezel as the iconic protagonist Number 6 and Sir Ian McKellen as Number 2 generated much-needed buzz for the project in its infancy. Weeks before the premiere, AMC promoted the show heavily while maintaining the air of mystery and confusion that was integral to the original.

AMC’s remake of “The Prisoner” attempts to reach many of the same heights of the original, but it falters in its fervent climb. From the beginning, it presents the scenes to differentiate itself without disassociating itself from the original. In the first episode, Number 6 wakes up abandoned in the desert. There he encounters Number 93, an old man who is purposefully dressed in the costume of the original Number 6 and is running from armed guards. Within minutes, Number 93 is dead and Number 6 has stumbled into the village.

From this point on, the remake loses track of many of the elements that made the original so remarkable. The unmistakable streak of individuality, intensity and freedom that ran through the original was dropped somewhere in the past 40 years, only to be replaced to with choppy, schizophrenic editing and vague symbolism.

Technically, the episodes have teemed with brilliance. The African desert provides an astonishing backdrop for the series. Stark landscapes contrast with the sleek, modern design of The Village, creating a wonderful sense of both bleakness and urbanity. Each scene is shot with careful consideration and a respectful attitude of homage to the original, artfully recreating several direct images.

Caviezel’s portrayal of Number 6 is frustrating at his best moments and dull at his worst. It is clear that he studied the source material, but compared to the original actor, Patrick McGoohan, Caviezel is unable to bring the same emotional weight to the simple close-ups and timely glances. While he hasn’t quite dropped to Keanu Reeves levels of boredom, he has yet to master a fourth facial expression to add to his résumé.

Caviezel additionally suffers from being paired with one of the elder statesmen of British acting, McKellen. A chance to play Number 2 would be a crowning achievement for most actors, but for McKellan, Number 2 merely joins Gandalf and Magneto as roles he plays as if he was born to do so. Chillingly self-assured, he maintains a stiff upper lip and a dry sense of humor unseen on this side of the pond. McKellen takes on another interesting character as no other actor could, with fascinating results.

Several striking symbols have been introduced into the show, none more notable than the clear allusion to the Twin Towers on the outskirts of the village. The intrigue and mystery of the show is heavy-handed and deliberate, with none of the campiness and humor of the original. What is missing is a clear plot: Why was Number 6 kidnapped? No one, including Number 2, seems to know the answer to this question. Without that, it’s hard even to tell whose side we’re on.

The art and excellence of “The Prisoner” is lost in a post-9/11 world. Questions of personal liberty and freedom have become muddled with paranoia about both the government and society at large. Instead of focusing on this conflict, “The Prisoner” has moved on to relationships and pseudo-meaningful statements. In a world already confused enough by “Lost,” “The Prisoner” will struggle to find an audience. It is too symbolic and confusing to be a straight drama, but it is not written well enough to stand as a mystery.